From our 4 March LDESP Africa News Update.
Since the French intervention in Mali began in early January, there have been mixed reports regarding the success of the mission. On the one hand, when French President Francois Hollande arrived in Timbuktu in early February, he was welcomed as a liberator and the intervention was declared a success. On the other hand, as argued by Middle East and North Africa political analyst for Pasco Risk Management, the worst may be yet to come:
“Retaking the north was the easy part. Now Mali faces guerrilla attacks, reportedly increasing cooperation between rebel groups, “the Tuareg problem”, and a divided government. Early on during the French intervention, many journalists in the international press were quick to note that Islamist militants had just “melted away” into the vast desert regions of northern Mali. As French jets attacked key strongholds, hundreds of Islamist fighters prepared convoys, which would escort leaders, weapons and fighters away from major towns. Witnesses confirmed suspicions that the militants’ departure was “orderly” and well-prepared. Their planned withdrawal may indicate their clear intention to redefine the nature of the conflict in Mali on their terms. Indeed, in a document allegedly left behind by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Timbuktu, a senior commander admits that an international intervention would exceed the group’s capability and that they ought therefore to retreat to their “rear bases” for the time being. (…)
Recent events have also shown that local and international troops should prepare for increased resistance and a protracted campaign. Malian soldiers faced the first wave of attacks when various suicide bombers targeted army bases and checkpoints in the city of Gao. A day later, two militants (one Arab and one Tuareg) were intercepted with explosive belts strapped to their bodies. Malian troops were also tested by a significant counter-offensive led by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in the same city on 10 February. As Mali’s northern provinces become more secure, Islamist militants will increasingly engage in targeted attacks, using asymmetric warfare to test international troops and regain the upper hand. The caves and mountains of the Adrar des Ifoghas region, for example, are ideal locations for militant groups to hide and prepare hit and run operations. (…)
Another worrying development in recent weeks has been allegedly increasing cooperation between Islamist militant groups across west Africa. Locals in Timbuktu claim Nigeria’s rebel group Boko Haram had training camps in the city. A flyer from another Nigerian militant group, Ansaru, was apparently discovered in Gao in the abandoned home of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the group believed to be behind the In Amenas attack on a gas plant facility in Algeria. And further suggestions have been made that Boko Haram militants might be using Chad as a rear base to prepare attacks. Chad has sent 1,800 men to fight alongside French and African troops in Mali.” (The Guardian)
In spite of France’s statements that they will be pulling out this month, the conflict seems to be pulling in more and more foreign involvement both within the region and beyond. In mid-February, reports emerged of Islamist militants from Nigeria who abducted a French family in northern Cameroon. Shortly thereafter, a Youtube video was posted saying that the family was being held by Boko Haram.
Another indicator of the interconnectedness of the conflict is an interesting document that was found in a building in Timbuktu occupied by AQIM just before the French takeover of that city. The Associated Press reports:
Al Qaeda Tipsheet on How to Avoice Drones Found in Mali
“One of the last things the bearded fighters did before leaving this city was to drive to the market where traders lay their carpets out in the sand. The Al Qaeda extremists bypassed the brightly colored, high-end synthetic floor coverings and stopped their pickup truck in front of a man selling more modest mats woven from desert grass, priced at $1.40 apiece. There they bought two bales of 25 mats each, and asked him to bundle them on top of the car, along with a stack of sticks. “It’s the first time someone has bought such a large amount,” said the mat seller, Leitny Cisse al-Djoumat. “They didn’t explain why they wanted so many.” Military officials can tell why: The fighters are stretching the mats across the tops of their cars on poles to form natural carports, so that drones cannot detect them from the air. The instruction to camouflage cars is one of 22 tips on how to avoid drones, listed on a document left behind by the Islamic extremists as they fled northern Mali from a French military intervention last month. A Xeroxed copy of the document, which was first published on a jihadist forum two years ago, was found by The Associated Press in a manila envelope on the floor of a building here occupied by Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb. The tipsheet reflects how Al Qaeda’s chapter in North Africa anticipated a military intervention that would make use of drones, as the battleground in the war on terror worldwide is shifting from boots on the ground to unmanned planes in the air. The presence of the document in Mali, first authored by a Yemeni, also shows the coordination between Al Qaeda chapters, which security experts have called a source of increasing concern. “This new document… shows we are no longer dealing with an isolated local problem, but with an enemy which is reaching across continents to share advice,” said Bruce Riedel, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, now the director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. (…) The use of the mats appears to be a West African twist on No. 3, which advises camouflaging the tops of cars and the roofs of buildings, possibly by spreading reflective glass. (…) The U.S. recently signed a “status of forces agreement” with Niger, one of the nations bordering Mali, suggesting the drone base may be situated there and would beprimarily used to gather intelligence to help the French.
The author of the tipsheet found in Timbuktu is Abdallah bin Muhammad, the nom de guerre for a senior commander of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Yemen-based branch of the terror network. The document was first published in Arabic on an extremist website on June 2, 2011, a month after bin Laden’s death, according to Mathieu Guidere, a professor at the University of Toulouse. Guidere runs a database of statements by extremist groups, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and he reviewed and authenticated the document found by the AP. The tipsheet is still little known, if at all, in English, though it has been republished at least three times in Arabic on other jihadist forums after drone strikes took out U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in September 2011 and Al Qaeda second-in-command Abu Yahya al-Libi in Pakistan in June 2012. It was most recently issued two weeks ago on another extremist website after plans for the possible U.S. drone base in Niger began surfacing, Guidere said. ‘This document supports the fact that they knew there are secret U.S. bases for drones, and were preparing themselves,’ he said. ‘They were thinking about this issue for a long time.’ The idea of hiding under trees to avoid drones, which is tip No. 10, appears to be coming from the highest levels of the terror network. In a letter written by bin Laden and first published by the U.S. Center for Combating Terrorism, the terror mastermind instructs his followers to deliver a message to Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, whose fighters have been active in Mali for at least a decade. ‘I want the brothers in the Islamic Maghreb to know that planting trees helps the mujahedeen and gives them cover,’ bin Laden writes in the missive. ‘Trees will give the mujahedeen the freedom to move around especially if the enemy sends spying aircrafts to the area.’” (Fox News, Associated Press)
Beyond Mali’s neighbors, Western powers have slowly increased involvement in assisting French efforts. In early February, the UK sent troops and military personnel to the country. And in early March, the Wall Street Journal reported that the “U.S. Boosts War Role in Africa”:
“The U.S. is markedly widening its role in the stepped up French-led military campaign against extremists in Mali, providing sensitive intelligence that pinpoints militant targets for attack, U.S. and allied officials disclosed. U.S. Reaper drones have provided intelligence and targeting information that have led to nearly 60 French airstrikes in the past week alone in a range of mountains the size of Britain, where Western intelligence agencies believe militant leaders are hiding, say French officials. The operations target top militants, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of January’s hostage raid on an Algerian natural gas plant that claimed the lives of at least 38 employees, including three Americans. Chad forces said they killed him on Saturday, a day after saying they had killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, the commander of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Mali wing. (…)
French, U.S. and Malian officials have not confirmed the deaths of Mr. Belmokhtar or Mr. Zeid, citing a lack of definitive information from the field. But they say the new arrangement with the U.S. has led in recent days to a raised tempo in strikes against al Qaeda-linked groups and their allies some time after the offensive began in January. That is a shift for the U.S., which initially limited intelligence sharing that could pinpoint targets for French strikes. The elite Chadian unit fighting in Mali was trained by U.S. special operations forces who have been working in Chad, Chadian and U.S. officials said in early March. The unarmed U.S. drones played a key role in the recent offensive in which French and Chadian forces succeeded in homing in on and ambushing a group of militants in the Adrar Tigharghar mountains of northern Mali, near the border with Algeria, French officials said. (…)
The U.S. decision to authorize the Pentagon and U.S. spy agencies to feed detailed targeting information directly to French forces came after a lengthy U.S. administration debate over how directly to aid French strikes, according to U.S., French and other Western officials. The arrangement represents a test of President Barack Obama’s new strategy for dealing with the growing terrorist threat in Africa. Instead of sending American ground troops and armed drones to take direct action, the U.S. where possible will try to provide logistical, technical and intelligence support to enable local and regional partners to pull the trigger, officials say. The approach could be a model for future drone operations in a region where the U.S. has few established air bases of its own, and as a way to limit Washington’s role in lethal operations, officials say.
A Western official said the Adrar Tigharghar operation itself, in which the U.S. has provided targeting information to facilitate French and Chadian strikes, was an example of a new counterterrorism strategy of working “by, with and through” local forces and a “rare North Africa success story.”
For weeks, U.S. spy agencies and administration lawyers debated whether providing actionable intelligence to the French to facilitate strikes would make the U.S. a “cobelligerent” in a widening conflict with an al Qaeda affiliate that U.S. intelligence agencies don’t yet see as a direct threat to the U.S. homeland. Administration officials initially cited concerns that furnishing actionable intelligence to the French would spur the affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, to start targeting American interests in the region. They were also concerned the move would make the U.S. culpable for lethal operations that it wouldn’t control. (…)
In recent years, a Joint U.S. Special Operations Task Force in Africa has provided Chad’s Special Anti-Terrorism Group, the unit involved in the operations last week that allegedly killed Mr. Belmokhtar and Mr. Zeid, with equipment, training and logistical support, officials say. American forces didn’t accompany the Chadian unit to Mali, U.S. officials said, as Mr. Obama has so far limited the American role to provide intelligence and logistical support. Chad said it has lost 26 soldiers in the Mali offensive. A senior Chadian government official confirmed that the Special Anti-Terrorism Group deployed last month to Mali and involved in the battle in the Adrar Tigharghar mountains had been trained by U.S. instructors. (…)
Under the new arrangement for Mali, unarmed U.S. Reapers scour the deserts and mountains using their sensors to search for so-called patterns of life—communications and movements deemed by the U.S. to be telltale signs of militant activity, officials said. The Americans then pass the raw video feeds and other real time data to French military and intelligence officers who decide if, how and when to use the information. French fighter planes or ground forces sometimes swoop in to attack. The information is also shared with African forces involved in the French-led campaign, including the Chadians, officials said. (Wall Street Journal)
Meanwhile, in the capital Bamako, the country’s next presidential elections are set for July 7 of this year, in which case the U.S. has stated it is likely to resume direct support for Mali’s military.